Carbon, the “C” of our life with or without hydrocarbons. Thanks to this element, positioned as number “6” in the Periodic Table of Elements, we would have never had life on our Planet, as well as the present development of society.

The atomic structure of Carbon grants us the capa- bility of forming long chains and rings, thanks to its particularly stable space configuration in binding to each other, and, at the same time, opens up the possibilities for creating infinitive kinds of molecu- les to bind with other elements. This extraordinary and unique characteristic allowed the formation of amino-acids on our planet millions of years ago, the future building blocks of DNA, as well as the enti- re range of products we are using daily today: fuel, steel, plastic materials, including fibers and rubbers, paint, medicine and beauty products.

Without Carbon, human beings could have never started producing metal at the beginning of civilization, and, later on, steel, which was the basis for the second Industrial Revolution (1870), becoming the cradle for the development of Industrial Organic Chemistry, specifically the Chemical Industry of Carbon. At the beginning, the Organic Chemical Industry was fed by Carbon extracted from German and English coal mines, and later, by hydrocarbons co- ming from Oil fractionated in the Refinery; Oil then became the easiest source of building blocks for Organic Chemistry compared to the very basic Carbon structure of coal.

The Petrochemical industry was born alongside the biggest European and North American Oil industries. From the end of World War II, the Oil Industry experienced a period of massive development driven by the constant growth of fuel demand coming from the boom in automobile and aviation transportation, while at the same time fostering the development of the adjacent Petrochemical Industry, also experiencing a golden era thanks to the growth of the production of polyolefins (PE, PP, Rubber). This was also thanks to the discovery of methylaluminoxane catalysts (let us use the name of a molecule at least once) to produce Polypropylene, developed by the Nobel prize winner Giulio Natta, part of our Tecnimont Family.
Since then, bigger and bigger Refineries have been being built all over the world to feed the growing demand of energy. A barrel of Oil was, as it is now, processed with 85% produced as fuel products (Gasoline, Diesel, Fuel Jet) and the remaining 15% as feedstock for the Petrochemical Industry (ethane, propane, butane, naphtha).

Let us say that burning precious hydrocarbon that was formed millions of years ago just to operate internal combustion engines with a very low efficiency is not the best choice for our society; aside from the waste of such a precious source of building blocks for the chemical Industry, it increases the CO2 content in the atmosphere of our planet, changing its composition after millions of years and causing global warming due to the greenhouse effect. The world is increasingly envisioning a new Era driven by an ambitious “CO2 free” and “plastic free” vision. Thanks to the discovery of new materials and the amazing pace of development of electronics and digitalization science, the energy sector has been moving toward renewable sources.
The demand for oil for the fuel needed by the transportation sectors is set to decline as result of electric/hybrid vehicle development, higher fuel efficiency and, last but
not the least, a new concept of mobility being adopted by the new generation (shared economy).

All of a sudden, Carbon, the heart of our fragile Earth’s ecosystem, appears to be both an old friend, and at the same time, an alleged enemy of the planet. Starting from the Kyoto Protocol and most importantly after the Paris Agreement (COP21) of 2015, public opinion has been mobilized, rightly so, in the direction of increasing the awareness of CO2 and NOx emissions as well as the enormous environmental implications of plastic waste to the greatest possible extent. On the other hand, the sentiment of public opinion has to cope with, and live in, an industrial world in which a growth of 4% per annum in the demand of Petrochemical products is projected, driven by population increase and the improvement of living standards, particularly in Asia and Africa. This means that in the next 20 years the Petrochemical demand is paradoxically expected to double, opening the door to the new Petrochemical Golden Era.

In the near future, the Petrochemical industries will be the main driver of all the Oil Companies’ investments which are capping their expenditure in Up-stream projects and/or decreasing oil refining capacities on the back of an accentuated drop in the demand of diesel fuel. All the Major and National Oil Companies are, in fact, announcing giant projects to enhance Petrochemical Production from existing assets as well as to set up brand new plants in line with the expected demand for oil derivatives. In fact, they are channe- ling huge downstream investments into the Petrochemical segment to maximize the implicit value of every barrel of crude which is produced or expected to be produced out of their large reservoirs. It also important to highlight that Petrochemical Plants are always key in bringing Industrialization processes, meaning employment and social/technological development, to countries and local communities that are, on the one hand “hydrocarbon rich”, and on the other, still economically developing. This was the case of Europe and North America in the old times, the Middle East and North Africa twenty years ago, and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa today. In such a land- scape, the overwhelming question is how the World can ideologically fight greenhouse gasses and plastics while that same World is industrially compelled to make large investments in Petchem infrastructure to cope with an incessant demand driven by demography and an increasingly middleclass lifestyle. How to reconcile this apparent schizophrenia?

The only reasonable answer is to be found by envisioning a mature view of a new Industrial Economy driven by an Energy Transition Roadmap which is being developed by the best minds on the Planet. No doubt that Renewable Energy is the name of the game, but none can deny the extreme volatility of a Future Energy Mix which is at the same time both environmentally sustainable and economically/industrially viable. Whatever the level of speed of such an Energy Transition Public Opinion and the Regulators are ready to accept, whether more or less aggressive, now is the time for Energy Engineers such as Maire Tecnimont to genuinely mobilize towards Innovation.

The first set of Maire Tecnimont ideas has been called GREENING THE BROWN, meaning those innovations which apply to traditional Petchem solutions, and is aimed at limiting or eliminating CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions released from existing plants. Zero emissions desulfurization technologies or chemical fertilizer coating to avoid ammonia dispersions are good examples.

The second cluster of ideas is focused on CIRCULAR ECONOMY as a way to regenerate existing plastic, thus avoiding environmental impacts: from the mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic materials to regenerate polymers up to the waste-to-chemicals technologies which could produce renewable gas, hydrogen or any traditional chemical from the gasification of wastes.

The third domain of Maire Tecnimont efforts towards the Energy Transition is named GREEN GREEN. As we said, Carbon is the source of vital energy and can be found not only in Hydrocarbons, but also in sugar and cellulose for example. Chemistry and Biology will cooperate in this respect, leveraging bacteria and enzymes. It is the time for Biofuels and Bioplastics from Biomasses. The ocean emergency will urge the application of biodegradable plastic to kill the issue of invisible plastic in the sea. Single use plastic will be heavily tackled and under regulatory pressure. Hydrogen is the most “admirable” molecule in Nature and will play a pivotal role. Electrochemistry willdrive the production of Hydrogen from Solar/Wind Renewable Energy through Electrolysis, and more in general, a stream of new ideas will follow to produce chemicals. CO2, which is the most “inert” molecule in Nature, could be energized by renewable Hydrogen, producing Polyolefins (and plastics) in a brand-new sustainable way. All these initiatives are the backbone of Maire Tecnimont’s new company named NextChem, which was launched last November during a dedicated event at our Milan Headquarters. Despite a massive world scale mobilization, it will take time; the next decade will be key. The colossal worldwide production of energy and chemicals will continue to be driven by traditional hydrocarbon technologies whose environmental impacts will be continuously scrutinized and optimized.

While we believe in the immense value of a coura- geous transition towards a New Energy paradigm, re-thought for the sake of the Planet, we don’t believe in the ideology of a Plastic free World. We rather believe that a revolution has to take place in the responsible use of Plastic, starting from single-use and invisible plastic. Plastic, properly re-used and re-cycled, will remain an integral part of our life as the best molecule in which the valuable “C” of Carbon is entrapped and utilized in the most durable manner – and not burnt and wasted as in diesel fuels – conveying incredible characteristics to a material which represents one of the best discoveries of Modern Man.

Pierroberto Folgiero

Maire Tecnimont Group CEO e Managing Director

Giovanni Sale

Group Corporate Strategy SVP, Americas Region VP